Philippines: COVID-19 as a public health crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates the long-standing symptoms of a weak and inequitable public health system in the Philippines. A densely populated capital, widespread socioeconomic disparities and inept infrastructure have made the country an epidemiological disaster waiting to happen.


Like any other country whose health system has been put to the test, the Philippines, with its relatively ill-equipped health system, is expected to be overwhelmed with the surge of COVID-19 cases. A shortage of hospital beds in regular as well intensive care, mechanical ventilators and masks are among the most pressing issues in an archipelago country of 100 million people.

Days after the announcement of a lockdown, it became evident that action plans and centralized power alone would not be enough to ensure social protection for all Filipinos. For civil society groups, it was a call to take a more active role in addressing the pandemic.

Without intending to romanticize the concept of resilience, Filipinos have always been known to pull through environmental hazards and humanitarian crises that regularly plague the country. This pandemic is no exception. To help mitigate the impact, decentralized arrangements between corporations and workers have been made. Some are providing continuous payment and are moving to flexible work schemes, while others are directly offering cash assistance to employees. Less optimal short-term fixes, which provide immediate relief but are not certain to benefit workers in the long run, range from releasing workers’ thirteenth-month pay to utilization of leave credits during the period of quarantine.


Innovation and resourcefulness

In the face of the rapidly unfolding COVID-19 crisis, improvising, local initiatives and creative innovations are the call of the hour. They are key to address the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), testing kits and critical infrastructure. Scientists from the National Institute for Health developed a local antigen-based screening test kit that lowered the cost and reduced turnaround time for results. Students from the University of the Philippines released models for sanitary tents, which were adopted by local government units. Due to the supply shortage of PPE, workers in the garment industry developed a design for masks, together with infectious disease specialists, and temporarily converted their workspace into a makeshift mask factory. Local communities in villages started assembling face shields made from everyday materials.


Social rearrangements as windows of solidarity

It is truly inspiring to see how many innovations in terms of social solidarity are emerging, which are equally important as technological innovations. Schools, hotels and event places have opened up their spaces to cater to patients with mild symptoms of COVID-19. Cafes and dormitories have opened to accommodate front-liners and people who are homeless. Various individuals have started fundraising programmes for the relief of marginalized groups, developed databases to match donors and those who need assistance and volunteered in government relief efforts. Professionals in different fields are also offering free online consultations via social media platforms.


Stigma and discrimination against underpaid, overworked front-liners

While most people respond to the pandemic with a strong sense of solidarity, public anxiety over the spread of the virus has led to the emergence of discriminating acts against front-liners. Because they are highly susceptible to the virus, some front-liners have been evicted from their boarding house, have been prevented from buying food and, at times, subject to violence. A nurse in the southern Philippines was splashed with a corrosive disinfectant by five men. In Quezon City, an ambulance driver was shot in his hand after being accused of transporting COVID-19-positive patients.

Despite the risk to their personal or family’s health and poor compensation, health care workers bravely continue going to work.


Any public health crisis is essentially about social justice

Comprehensive health care, even in normal times, is prohibitively expensive and out of reach for many people in the Philippines. Filipinos shoulder more than half of their total health expenses out of pocket. An estimated 1 million people are driven into poverty every year because of health-related expenses. And 6 out of 10 people in the Philippines die without seeing a doctor.

Social justice is at the bottom of any public health crisis. Civil society in the Philippines has taken on much of the burden, performing tasks that urgently need to be addressed by the government, such as fundraising for more PPE and tests, securing front-liners’ welfare and ensuring food supply and distribution. The big gap in this crisis is yet to be filled with the State’s response. Hands-on civil society initiatives grounded in solidarity and justice continue to be an important source of hope at this decisive point in time.


Dr. RJ Naguit is a consultant for public health at the Institute of Politics and Governance (IPG) in Quezon City, Philippines. He is also chairperson of Akbayan Youth, the youth organization of the Akbayan Citizens' Action Party, and the Youth for Mental Health Coalition (Y4MH).

The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.

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